‘Empathy fatigue’ in clinicians rises with latest COVID-19 surge


Heidi Erickson, MD, is tired. As a pulmonary and critical care physician at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis, she has been providing care for patients with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

Doctor stressed and burnout during Covid-19 epidemic rclassenlayouts/Getty Images

It was exhausting from the beginning, as she and her colleagues scrambled to understand how to deal with this new disease. But lately, she has noticed a different kind of exhaustion arising from the knowledge that with vaccines widely available, the latest surge was preventable.

Her intensive care unit is currently as full as it has ever been with COVID-19 patients, many of them young adults and most of them unvaccinated. After the recent death of one patient, an unvaccinated man with teenage children, she had to face his family’s questions about why ivermectin, an antiparasitic medication that was falsely promoted as a COVID-19 treatment, was not administered.

“I’m fatigued because I’m working more than ever, but more people don’t have to die,” Dr. Erickson said in an interview . “It’s been very hard physically, mentally, emotionally.”

Amid yet another surge in COVID-19 cases around the United States, clinicians are speaking out about their growing frustration with this preventable crisis.

Some are using the terms “empathy fatigue” and “compassion fatigue” – a sense that they are losing empathy for unvaccinated individuals who are fueling the pandemic.

Dr. Erickson says she is frustrated not by individual patients but by a system that has allowed disinformation to proliferate. Experts say these types of feelings fit into a widespread pattern of physician burnout that has taken a new turn at this stage of the pandemic.

Paradoxical choices

Empathy is a cornerstone of what clinicians do, and the ability to understand and share a patient’s feelings is an essential skill for providing effective care, says Kaz Nelson, MD, a psychiatrist at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Dr. Kaz Nelson, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Dr. Kaz Nelson

Practitioners face paradoxical situations all the time, she notes. These include individuals who break bones and go skydiving again, people who have high cholesterol but continue to eat fried foods, and those with advanced lung cancer who continue to smoke.

To treat patients with compassion, practitioners learn to set aside judgment by acknowledging the complexity of human behavior. They may lament the addictive nature of nicotine and advertising that targets children, for example, while still listening and caring.

Empathy requires high-level brain function, but as stress levels rise, brain function that drives empathy tends to shut down. It’s a survival mechanism, Dr. Nelson says.

When health care workers feel overwhelmed, trapped, or threatened by patients demanding unproven treatments or by ICUs with more patients than ventilators, they may experience a fight-or-flight response that makes them defensive, frustrated, angry, or uncaring, notes Mona Masood, DO, a Philadelphia-area psychiatrist and founder of Physician Support Line, a free mental health hotline for doctors.

Dr. Mona Masood, a Philadelphia-area psychiatrist and founder and chief organizer of the Physician Support Line

Dr. Mona Masood

Some clinicians have taken to Twitter and other social media platforms to post about these types of experiences.

These feelings, which have been brewing for months, have been exacerbated by the complexity of the current situation. Clinicians see a disconnect between what is and what could be, Dr. Nelson notes.

“Prior to vaccines, there weren’t other options, and so we had toxic stress and we had fatigue, but we could still maintain little bits of empathy by saying, ‘You know, people didn’t choose to get infected, and we are in a pandemic.’ We could kind of hate the virus. Now with access to vaccines, that last connection to empathy is removed for many people,” she says.


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